Summary: Writing Without Bullshit By Josh Bernoff
Summary: Writing Without Bullshit By Josh Bernoff

Summary: Writing Without Bullshit By Josh Bernoff

Write Short

Use fewer words. Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.

Of all the ways to communicate boldly and powerfully in a noisy world, this is the most effective. Get to the point quickly, deliver your message, and let readers get on with the rest of their day. Remember the Iron Imperative:

  • Aim for a word count.
  • Say what you really mean.
  • Start the introduction boldly.
  • Organize relentlessly.
  • Prune sections and arguments.
  • Use bullets or tables.
  • Use graphics.
  • Trim connective tissue (e.g. therefore, now, let’s continue with).
  • Delete weasel words and qualifiers (e.g. considerable, very).

The bottom line is this. Eliminate everything you don’t need. The tighter you write, the more persuasive you will be.


Purge Passive Voice

Recognize Why Passive Voice Is a Problem

Passive voice is everywhere, but it’s especially common when people want “something to be done.” They write a report saying what needs to happen but hide who has to do the work. If you try to act on a recommendation like this, you immediately get stuck. You can’t figure out who’s supposed to do what.

[These are] issues that will need to be closely monitored in order to ensure the public sector is protected from extensive financial commitments. [Who is supposed to monitor the issues? Who is protecting the public sector? Somebody in government, but they’re not saying who.]

Rewrite Passive Sentences

Fixing passives sounds easy. Check that verb. Ask yourself who is placing, considering, and transforming. When you’ve answered the question, rewrite the sentence with that person or entity as the subject.

Retrain Your Brain Around Active Voice

If you want to maintain the value of what you’ve learned, put passive checking into the line-edit stage of every piece of writing you do. Look for “is,” “are,” “can,” “could,” “have,” “has,” and “ought” in your writing, and ask if the sentences that include them are passive. This helps sharpen your “passive detector.


Replace Jargon

Jargon is extremely useful. It makes writers seem like sophisticated insiders. Unfortunately, it makes life much harder for readers. Remember the Iron Imperative—that you must treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own? Jargon accomplishes the opposite: it clearly communicates that you think you are more important than the reader.

Let’s take a look at two strategy statements. Here’s one from a healthcare consultant:

System-level competition is a new model for strategy in a globally-linked, information-oriented society. This is a methodology for strategic innovation that blends system design and management, ecosystem-centered business strategy, and applications from complex adaptive systems research.

Compare it to this mission statement from Google:

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful


Eliminate Weasel Words

Why Weasel Words Are a Problem

Let’s start with a definition. A weasel word is an adjective, adverb, or noun that indicates quantity or intensity but lacks precision. Here are some common weasel words: “most,” “many,” “few,” “rarely,” “millions,” “cheap,” “countless.”

Let’s look at some examples. Here’s an excerpt from a letter that United Airlines’ new CEO, Oscar Munoz, who took over when the previous CEO left in the wake of a scandal, sent to frequent flyers:

I am excited about the incredible opportunity that the United team has to improve the travel experience essential to the vitality of global business and to the personal lives of millions of people.

The words “incredible” and “millions” are weasel words, and “essential” is suspect, too. This passage comes off as overgeneralized corporate bullshit. To rewrite, just remove the weasel words or replace them with actual numbers.

I am excited about the opportunity to improve your travel experience. I know that United Airlines is vital to the global business and personal travel that led you to take 140 million trips with us last year.


Be Direct With Pronouns

To stand out, your business writing needs to make a direct connection between the writer and the reader. “You,” “I,” and “we” make that connection. A simple change of pronouns forces you to think clearly about what you’re saying.

To Write with “You,” Visualize Your Readers

You can’t write “you” unless you have a clear idea of your audience. If you don’t know who you’re writing for and what you want them to do, why bother writing at all? So prepare yourself to be direct by identifying the “who” you’re writing for—your boss, the whole sales department, or all your customers.

Get over Your Fear of “I”

Your writing teachers told you not to use “I” in writing. This is because juvenile writers end up repeating “I think” and “I believe,” making their writing into a sort of personal narrative. College writing trains you to analyze what you read, and you’re not supposed to substitute your judgment for that of the experts you’re analyzing. That’s why “I” seems so jarring in academic writing.

In business, the opposite is true. Whatever you write, it reflects your integrity and judgment. You should take responsibility. The alternative is weak: the classic passive voice dodge.

Use “We” to Show You’re Part of a Team

Sometimes you’re speaking for a group. For example, you may be speaking for the company: “We will always respond to your service requests within one day.” Or for your collaborators: “We have analyzed the consumer data, and we believe that the market is open to purchasing at a 20% higher price point.” If you can’t use “I,” use “we.”

Beware the trap of the indeterminate “we,” though. When you write, “We’re uncomfortable with issuing a legal threat,” whom are you speaking for? A committee? A department? Don’t write “we” unless you’ve made it clear which team you’re speaking for.


Reveal Structure

Every paragraph that your reader reads, they’re potentially losing interest. The more paragraphs, the greater the chance they won’t make it to the end of what you’ve written.

Unless it’s short, a piece of writing made of paragraphs looks uniform and therefore intimidating, especially on a narrow screen like a smartphone. Anything that’s worth reading and is more than 300 words long has a structure of some kind. Reveal that structure, and you’ve given the reader some signposts. They see what’s coming, and that it looks interesting.

That’s why you need to mix up your text with headings, bullets, lists, tables, graphics, quotes, and links.


Email Thoughtfully

Emailing on automatic pilot is easy. You write a subject line, type what occurs to you, add as many people as you can think of to the “To:” line, and then hit Send. It’s the quickest thing you can write

Emails look unstructured. They’re not. Each email tells a story that looks like this: Here’s who I am; here’s what’s happening; here’s what it means; here’s what you should do. The key for all these parts is brevity and clarity. It’s the perfect place to say just what you mean. Here’s a quick checklist on what to include:

  1. A subject line that’s clear about what you need.
  2. A microwave greeting
  3. A one-sentence summary.
  4. The call to action with a deadline.
  5. Thank you, and goodbye.


Master Social Media

The overarching piece of advice on messaging systems is to tread carefully and leave as light a footprint as possible. With that philosophy, here are a few practical tips:

  • Reconsider messaging at all. If you can get your task done without texting or sending an instant message, you’re better off—it minimizes the chance to create annoyance.
  • Message down or across but generally not up. Messages work best between friends and colleagues, within or outside a company. But messaging bosses is dicey, especially if they manage lots of potential texters. That said, your boss would probably appreciate a timely text in an emergency, like “The website is down and we’re losing orders.”
  • Avoid group texts. Sometimes text messages can help a tightly knit group of two to four people communicate. But inviting a bunch of random people to a group text session multiplies the chance of annoyance geometrically.
  • Request an answer. If you don’t know what you want, don’t message. If you’ve got an extended question, use email or a phone call. Messaging is for quick, urgent questions like “Where is the right logo graphic file?” or “Who is in charge of customer service now that Margot has left?” If the recipient can’t respond in a quick message, don’t use messaging.
  • Choose the right medium. Texts and similar phone-based messages are good for people you know pretty well, those who would welcome a note from you. Corporate messaging systems function well for work-related questions that need a quick answer. Social network messaging is appropriate between people who know and follow each other on these networks—Facebook friends, Twitter mutual followers, and LinkedIn connections.
  • Get right to the point. Don’t be coy. Practice extreme front-loading with a spoonful of politeness. For example, “If you have a minute, I could really use some help with a contact at Chrysler.” Or “Wally, do you want me to check with Maribel before we make the customer data public this afternoon?” Don’t ask, “Do you have a minute?” because the answer is typically no. If you feel the need to write two or three sentences, send an email instead.
  • Use links and photos where they make sense. As in “Did you see our review in the Times [link]?” Or “Here’s what the new mock-up now looks like [photo].”
  • Avoid text-speak and emojis. In business settings, text-speak (cu l8r lol) saves a few characters at the expense of mystifying workers who didn’t grow up texting. And unless you want to be perceived as an adolescent, the crying-face emoji isn’t an appropriate way to note that you just pissed off a client.
  • Get off as quick as you got on. Once you get your answer, the correct response is “Thanks,” “Thx,” or “Grateful, I will buy you a bottle of scotch the next time you are in town.” Not “By the way, how did Billy’s hernia surgery turn out?”